There is a perception in some quarters that golf courses have a negative effect on the environment. In fact, the opposite is true.
Golf not only generates economic and tourism benefits to areas like the Scottish Highlands, it also brings environmental and ecological gains. It works well with nature, it can protect and enhance sensitive sites and, in many cases, help the natural environment grow and thrive.
Did you know that there are more than 100 courses in the UK that lie, at least partly, within a Site of Special Scientific Interest?
Or that almost all Open Championship venues operate in or around an SSSI?
Or that all ten host venues for The Open now have the GEO Certified® ecolabel? Or that this certification, an international symbol of ‘great golf environments’ that recognises clubs that have met high standards for performance in nature conservation, water and energy efficiency, ethical and environmental supply chain, pollution control and community engagement, is now a prerequisite for clubs staging large competitions?
The earliest courses were built on land that was of no use to farming; sandy, low-lying land that’s free-draining and difficult to grow crops. This links land was also of little value to landowners other than for recreation and, with the advent of the railway, was used to create golf and putting courses for people on holiday.
Nowadays, most, if not all, golf courses in the UK are built in or near towns and conurbations, utilising links land, as well as heathland and parkland. Some of these conurbations have grown as a direct result of the courses being developed.
They make productive use of unused land and create open green spaces not just for people, but also for all manner of mammals, birds, invertebrates and flora a fauna. Without exception, they possess a diverse blend of trees, bushes, grassland, water courses and habitats. An environmental haven that is carefully managed for a variety of users.
Golf courses create fantastic corridors for wildlife, allowing them to flourish and move around the area. Mice, shrews, voles, foxes, badgers, raptors, reptiles and a wide range of flora and fauna, all benefit from these oases.
You only have to fly over London or Manchester to see the large green spaces golf courses cover. I have no doubt that, if these courses were not built, the land would be lost to development and these vital wildlife corridors would disappear.
A huge number of bird species are attracted to golf courses. On most links courses, you will find yellowhammer, chaffinches, whitethroats, willow warblers, song thrush, blackbirds, robins, wrens, dunnock, whinchat and tits.
During any construction, most of these birds grab the opportunity to follow the excavator for easy food. Curlew are regular visitors to disturbed ground - I have witnessed this first hand. When construction is finished they quickly settle back into their daily routine, thriving in the protected confines of the golf course, while using the wider fairways for roosting and safety.
On managed grassland, meadow pipits and skylarks will increase in population due to different density and depth of roughs. With many of the dune slacks and wet areas, you may also see grasshopper warbler, sedge warbler, snipe, teal, widgeon and all manner of water fowl, along with ringed plover, while any open sand can encourage sand martins to nest and other birds that warm themselves on sunny steep banks.
So, all these golf courses have key roles to play in habitat conservation. Working with government organisations, such as Scottish Natural Heritage and the Scottish Environment Protection Agency in this country, these areas can be models for environmental stewardship.
Here are some examples of positive work being done where nature is being encouraged to prosper.
(Above) Buckthorn and Sycamore trees are swamping the dunes and affecting natural environments on a SSSI at North Berwick. Working with SNH, the club is paying for work to remove the invasive species that is impacting on sand dune grasses.
(Left) After the invasive species has been cleared, it is clear that the Buckthorn and Sycamore has taken its toll on the understory, which should harbour many species of grass, plants, and birds along with different types of insects and mammals.
(Right) Cleared sand dune on its way back to health and a high dune links landscape which would not be possible without the help of the golf club.
(Above left) Gorse and birch encroachment on heather and lichen high dune at Coul Links. Once established, gorse grows and spreads at an alarming rate, killing everything in the understory. If not controlled, it will overtake a huge area in less than a decade.
(Above right) you can see heather in sharp decline. This can be rectified with management, such as trimming or grazing, Golf courses can provide the resources in areas like this to secure the site for generations to come.
(Above left) Machrihanish Golf Club has been built in recent years in a SSSI with dune slacks, high dune and wildlife habitats all enhanced by sensible management
(Above right) Askernish Golf Club is also a shining example of what can be achieved while providing long-term protection for the environment.
For example, at Askernish environmental work has led to improved habitat for the corncrake, a bird that has in recent years been in sharp decline.
To encourage different species of birds and different types of plants, grassland must also be managed, without grazing or cutting. Ground-nesting birds, such as owls, skylark, ringed plover and oyster catchers, find it hard to nest, they need a thinner grass base and one which will not be touched at all during the nesting season.
(Above left) A good example of natural corridors on a golf course is shown in this picture of Castle Stuart, which was created near a SSSI and Special Area of Conservation site and been the venue for four Scottish Opens.
On the left you can see habitats on both sides of Hole 17. The picture also highlights the need for continued management of gorse which can swamp heather and grassland on the site - note the encroachment at the side of the tee on the right into heather and the clean, healthy heather dune on the left with a rich diversity of lichens and mosses.
The aerial shot on the right underlines how much non-maintained habitat there is and all the natural passages there are over the whole site.
Castle Stuart sits on 100 hectares, 24 hectares of which is managed grass and the rest, while covered by a management plan, is relatively untouched, creating huge space for wildlife.
In Part 2 of this blog, we will dispel some myths about the use of chemicals and fertilizers on golf courses.